Harvard, Obamacare, and the Conservative Information Bubble

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Harvard University walk through the campus.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Conservatives have experienced Obamacare as a narrative of endless turmoil and failure, largely because conservative media systematically filters out positive reports while relentlessly hyping negative ones. The most recent grist for the machinery of doomsaying is a New York Times report that Harvard faculty are up in arms over changes to their health insurance, loosely related to reforms in the Affordable Care Act. The schadenfreude is flowing, from the Daily Caller to Jonathan Adler to Red State to Hot Air.

What makes this response funny, if not unusual, is that the reforms currently roiling the Harvard faculty are moderate versions of the reforms conservatives themselves not only have championed but continue to champion. The theory undergirding Harvard’s changes is that excessively generous health insurance is inefficient. If consumers bear zero cost, they will over-consume health-care services, thus driving up prices for everybody in the system. Harvard is imposing relatively modest increases in deductibles — a $20 fee for a doctor’s visit, and deductibles up to $250 a year for an individual. Faculty members accustomed to health insurance that covers 100 percent of their costs find a new plan covering merely 90 percent offensive.

As the Times reports, the changes are a response to Harvard’s own health-care experts, many of whom advocated for Obamacare. The story has thus entered the conservative mind as a case of liberal elites suffering under the yoke of a liberal program. “One imagines how all these pampered academics would feel if they were forced to use a silver (70% covered) Obamacare plan … ” gloats Red State.

But of course the conservative objection to Obamacare isn’t that its silver plan, covering 70 percent of health-care costs, is too skimpy. The objection is just the opposite. Conservatives hate, or claim to hate, Obamacare because its benefits are too generous. They propose instead to replace the law with far skimpier benefits, so that healthy individuals can enjoy the low premiums that come with bare-bones plans covering fewer claims and offering less protection. They don’t think the 70 percent of costs covered in the Obamacare exchanges is too low. They think it’s too high.

Indeed, Harvard’s reforms show that in some ways, Obamacare has pushed the health-care system moderately in the direction conservatives favor, by encouraging employers to shift more of the cost of care onto employees. Liberal health-care wonks (such as those advising Harvard) embrace this policy much more cautiously than conservative health-care wonks. The liberals generally support small deductible increases, while conservatives favor much larger ones. Indeed, the theory that giving consumers “skin in the game” will limit health-care inflation has become the right’s main prescriptive belief.

The Harvard story demonstrates two things. First, Obamacare is implementing some versions of conservative ideas. Second, even moderate versions of this reform tend to upset consumers. But neither of these interpretations is capable of penetrating a conservative media apparatus that relentlessly turns all news stories into either non-stories or confirmation of their increasingly discredited hysteria.